Author feature – Someone Else’s Conflict by Alison Layland

By | October 5, 2015

Jay has been roaming rootless for years until one morning he arrives in a small Yorkshire Dales town and sees a face in the crowd which takes him back to the best and worst times of his life. 

In the aftermath of a failed affair, Marilyn is rebuilding her life and her barn when a lightning storm threatens to ruin everything. Should she trust Jay is who he says he is, even when he is economical with the truth? When he disappears running after an immigrant pickpocket, Marilyn is visited by the police with a tale of murder; should she keep quiet about her doubts?

Since the advent of Book Connectors, I’ve “met” some lovely authors – many of whom I’ve featured on Being Anne – and read some wonderful books I might not otherwise have discovered. When I “met” author Alison Layland, we were struck by our common ground – I’m a Welsh woman living in Yorkshire and loving it, while Alison made the opposite journey, Yorkshire-born and now living in Wales, having embraced the language and culture to an extent that really impressed me (and made me slightly ashamed!). 

Alison sent me a copy of her debut novel – Someone Else’s Conflict, published by Honno Welsh Women’s Press in November 2014, available in paperback and for kindle. I really enjoyed it – as undoubtedly did the other 35 readers who awarded it five stars on Amazon (not to mention the other five, who gave it four!). My thoughts on the book follow, but first I’m delighted to welcome Alison Layland to Being Anne.

Welcome Alison! Would you like to introduce yourself?

Thanks, Anne, and hello. I’m Alison Layland, a writer and translator from German, French and Welsh into English. Originally from Bradford, Yorkshire, I’ve lived in various parts of the UK until settling in Wales about 18 years ago. As well as reading (obviously!) I love, and am inspired by, all kinds of music, walking in the countryside and cinema, theatre and oral storytelling.

After reading Someone Else’s Conflict, I have so many questions to ask I’m not sure where to start! So let’s do the personal first – I’m fascinated by the way you’ve embraced my Welsh homeland. Tell me more… what was it about Wales that captured your heart?

We actually moved to Wales by chance – when we moved from Hertfordshire, where we were living in the late 1990s, I was already working freelance, from home, so we could choose to live literally anywhere. Whatever serendipitous route led us here, as well as the fact that it’s a physically beautiful country I was delighted to find that the Welsh language played a large part of life in our area – I’ve always been fascinated by the Celtic languages and immediately set about learning Welsh and getting involved in the culture. And that was what ultimately led to me starting to write fiction.

And then in Someone Else’s Conflict, we’re back in Yorkshire – I’d love to know more about the setting. Holdwick isn’t on my map of the Dales…

When I began writing the novel I found myself turning to Yorkshire, where I grew up, and I drew on both urban settings in Bradford and Keighley, and the Dales, an area I have always loved and where I spent a lot of time as a teenager doing outdoor pursuits. Holdwick is a fictional town (in terms of location, loosely based on Settle or Grassington). Part of the reason for using an imaginary town was that I wanted the events I describe in the Croatian war, and their location, to be strictly fictional, so I invented the town of Holdwick to balance it out.

Your scenes of the Croatian conflict and its aftermath are exceptionally realistic – how did you research them?

I did a lot of reading, both factual and fiction. It was a very complex situation and I found myself getting drawn in and, like most writers when they’re researching a subject, obsessed – with Croatia, the wider Balkan region and the conflict itself. I read some excellent political and historical books, some first-hand accounts from people who were there, and lots of fiction, both novels set in the region and the conflict, and, more generally, translated literature from the Balkans. We also spent several holidays travelling the region, which gave me a great insight. And, given my love of languages, I was inspired to begin learning the language, an ongoing process which I’m thoroughly enjoying as well as helping me to gain a personal sense of authenticity – and, in reverse, my own struggles gave me an insight into portraying Vinko’s pidgin English.

Jay’s story-telling was enthralling – where did your inspiration come from?

Over the years I’ve added to the interest I’ve always had in myths and legends by developing a real interest in storytelling, getting to know a number of oral storytellers and becoming involved in the lovely Festival at the Edge storytelling festival in Much Wenlock, Shropshire, where I’m a volunteer steward every year. Jay’s stories in the novel were inspired by the wonderful stories I’ve heard in many magical performances.

I think this is a book that would appeal to absolutely anyone – but I’d like to know why you think people should read it. What kind of reader did you have in mind as you wrote?

I guess in the first instance I wrote the kind of novel I’d like to read myself – but as my interests are pretty wide that’s not much help! I’d say it’s for anyone who likes to get involved with characters – there’s a strong element of love story and friendship – and who want a story with strong elements of intrigue and suspense, but who also want to think about issues raised. I hope my readers will also be inspired to find out more about the Croatian conflict and the Balkan region in general. I’ve had some lovely feedback from several reading groups who have found lots in the novel to discuss.

I know this is your first published novel – tell me more about your path to publication.

I first started writing fiction – although I’ve told myself stories for as long as I can remember – about fifteen years ago, as a result of learning Welsh (my Welsh tutor was also a creative writing teacher). As a commercial translator, I’d always dreamed of translating fiction, which I now do, but didn’t have the confidence to write my own stories down. I found that starting to write in another language helped me overcome my self-consciousness and I wrote a number of successful short stories and flash fiction in Welsh, culminating in winning the short story competition at the National Eisteddfod. I eventually started writing in English, and my first novel, which I wrote in Welsh and later translated for my friends and family, went through a long round of rejections from agents and publishers, but during the process I received enough positive comments about my writing to keep going. I tried for publication again with Someone Else’s Conflict, which was eventually picked up by Honno Welsh Women’s Press. Their team and the “family” of talented fellow authors have all been wonderfully supportive before and after publication.

You’ll notice I didn’t add “and so late in life” to my last question! The work of the Prime Writers group seems to make up most of my reading these days. Has membership helped you?

Incredibly! I feel so lucky to have met the Prime Writers – one of the best things to have come from joining Twitter, which I did as a direct result of getting a publishing contract. Since the initial idea and our first meeting last January, the group has grown into an incredibly dynamic and supportive force. It’s been wonderful to meet such a wide range of talented authors who all started later in life for various reasons, to share our experiences and pool our resources. Like you, I’ve read a large number of great books by them this year.

I talk about my reading all the time – what books have you enjoyed recently?

I’m currently reading Edith & I – On the trail of an Edwardian traveller in Kosovo by Elizabeth Gowing, a fascinating account of the author’s research into the life and work of explorer, activist and travel writer Edith Durham, with lots of insight into Kosovo life past and present. We spent a few days in Kosovo during our recent holiday and loved the experience. I’d intended to read this book before we went, but didn’t manage it, so am enjoying it now as a great way of reliving our travels. I’ve read so many great books recently – ones I’ve particularly enjoyed include The Ocean at the End of the Lane by one of my favourites, Neil Gaiman, the witty and insightful The House of Journalists by fellow Prime Writer Tim Finch, very appropriate given the present plight of migrants and refugees, and the wonderful The Penny Heart, another absorbing and atmospheric historical novel by Martine Bailey.

So, what’s next for you? Is the difficult second novel underway? 

I’ve just finished translating a great detective novel from German, by Gabi Kreslehner, Raven Sisters, which I really enjoyed working on and is scheduled for publication in spring 2016. I’m now concentrating on my “difficult second novel”, which is too much in the early stages to say much about, except that it will be a mystery drawing, among other things, on my interest in green issues and ecology.

Thank you so much for joining me Alison… I enjoyed that almost as much as your lovely book!

My thoughts on Someone Else’s Conflict

This was a book that constantly surprised me. At one point, I thought it was going to be a relatively straightforward tale about two damaged people finding love in the Yorkshire Dales. Jay is an itinerant storyteller with a complicated past, Marilyn emerging from a toxic relationship and living in an isolated cottage: she accepts his help in repairing her barn after a storm, and it turns into love. There’s a lovely sequence near the start of the book where Jay weaves elements into his stories that attract customers to nearby stalls in the market – I think I was lulled into expecting something quite different from what the book became. 

The prologue should have been the clue really – a young boy witnessing an act of cruelty and violence during the Balkan conflict, coming face-to-face with an enemy soldier, being told to run. And then there’s Vinko – right there in the Dales square, stealing money from Marilyn’s purse – and we’re into a different world of war and its consequences, illegal immigrants and the challenges they face. And then we find out that Jay is far more complex than he at first appears. The book turns into a thriller – in stark contrast with its homely Yorkshire setting – and in the last third moves at breakneck pace to a thrilling ending. And through it all, we have a slow reveal, told through flashbacks and dreams, of Jay’s background story in war-torn former Yugoslavia, and the links between the love story and the thriller in the making become clear. 

This is a book that really shouldn’t have worked – how on earth can anyone draw together so many diverse elements? And I haven’t even mentioned the murder mystery – or the recurring appearance of a figure from the past. It’s a tribute to Alison Layland’s writing that it works really well – this is a first novel, but it really doesn’t show. Far more than its parts, it exposes the waste and futility of fighting for a cause, the tragic effects of a civil war that can’t be won. If I have any criticism, it’s a very small one – I did get a little lost in some of the wartime detail, especially when told by Jay in conversation with Marilyn. But this is an excellent read – a real page turner that confounds your initial expectations, and I really look forward to seeing what the author tries next.

Someone Else’s Conflict is Alison Layland’s debut novel and was featured as a Debut of the Month for January on the Lovereading site. Alison has an excellent website where you can read more about her and her writing (and watch the very atmospheric book trailer). She also has a Facebook author page and can be followed on Twitter.